Tag: Simon Phillips

Review: Songs For Nobodies

One woman becomes ten

By Owen James

Bernadette Robinson is a star, and Songs For Nobodies is the perfect vehicle for her endless talent to be showcased in. Originally commissioned and directed by Simon Phillips ten years ago, this one-woman masterpiece allows Robinson to become Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas in succession, alongside five women who meet these stars in unlikely and often amusingly implausible situations.

She has the audience in the palm of her hand from the very beginning, and we are enthralled with every breath and spellbinding note. Robinson effortlessly switches between her impressive array of accents, dialects and musical styles as she crosses continents and classes, each new voice painting a portrait of a lost artist we feel could be genuinely standing before us. (And it’s the closest we’ll get!) Robinson performs from the heart, her loving recreations mesmerising and enchanting for their truthful purity. We are left astonished with delicate transitions between soprano torch songs, country classics, and smoky blues standards.

The whole experience is very calming and peaceful, a combination of the warm wave of nostalgia intrinsic to the material, and the feeling that we are always safe in Robinson’s expert hands. Sound and lighting designers have embraced this tranquillity, and enhanced every moment with simple but very effective use of soundscapes and flawless lighting states.

The text is written by acclaimed playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, and is imbued with research and passion at every turn. Clear and polished pictures are painted of both the famous artists and the ordinary women recounting their encounters in every monologue, and every carefully selected song is masterfully integrated with the text, creating a tonally consistent flow throughout the entire ninety minute runtime. The show is undoubtedly curated for an audience acquainted with the references, but will still be enjoyed by anyone unfamiliar with these famous artists, thanks to Murray-Smith’s witty and timeless writing.

It is difficult to imagine an artist more suited to their art than Bernadette Robinson in Songs For Nobodies. She is deserving of every piece of praise and acclaim that has come her way throughout the ten-year international performance history of this show – which includes a noteworthy nomination for an Olivier Award during its West End run. Living in the intimate Fairfax Studio at Arts Centre Melbourne until January 5th, this outing makes for the perfect pre-Christmas treat or post-Christmas wind-down. Not to be missed.

https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2019/musicals/songs-for-nobodies

Photography courtesy of The Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Tim Finn’s THE LADIES IN BLACK

Get some colour – and music – in your life

By Jessica Cornish

The other night I attended the opening night of Ladies in Black at the Regent Theatre. As I sweltered away under the hot Melbourne sun watching the celebs dash out of their cars on to the red carpet, I was unsure how the night would unfold. Directed by Simon Phillips, Ladies in Black isn’t your run-of-the-mill drama drenched production laced with consistent emotive blows to the heart. Instead it captures a point in time when shops were closed on a Sunday, girls didn’t attend university, and Australia was experiencing an influx of ‘crazy continentals’ who fled the Second World War.

We follow leading lady Lisa (Sarah Morrison) as she gains a summer job at a high end Sydney department store in the 1950’s. Here she connects with her female colleagues and we explore the every-day domesticity of their lives and their genuine love and passion for style and fashion.

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Based on Madeleine St John’s novel, and composed by Aussie rock icon Tim Finn with book by Carolyn Burns, this charming new musical was certainly well received the night I attended, with cheeky songs like ‘He’s A Bastard’ and ‘I Just Kissed a Continental’ proving definite crowd-pleasers. Don’t worry – it’s not at all as bitter or racist as this sounds, and sassy protagonist Fay (Ellen Simpson) is quickly hooked on the lips and heart of her new Hungarian flame (Bobby Fox) lips and heart despite his unusual food and accent.

The cast gave strong vocal performances and executed proficiently the simple but effective choreography  of Andrew Hallsworth, appropriate for the diverse female cast of broad ages and body shapes. Plus it’s always refreshing to hear Aussie accents in song, and to have local references to towns such as good old Wagga Wagga. Sarah Morrison (Lisa) in particular was appealingly believable, and had impressive vocal skills that worked a treat for her character and the show’s style.

Set design by Gabriela Tylesova was simple but slightly underwhelming, incorporating an upstage scrim and series of perspex pillars throughout the production, which for me unfortunately seemed to lack the imagination and playfulness needed to compliment the story. Lighting design by David Walters was similarly simple but certainly got the job done. In constrast were Tylesova’s glorious costumes, capturing elaborate 1950’s cocktail gowns and society dresses that shone in glamorous contrast to the sombre blacks of the sales ladies’ attire.

Ladies in Black is  a theatrical snapshot of a group of wonderful women living in a time where Australia was (and surely still is) trying to define itself, and this musical uniquely ties up the lives of all its protagonists into a bundle of happiness. And you know what? – sometimes it’s nice to leave a show feeling content with the world and people in it.

Venue: The Regent Theatre

Season: 25 Feb- 18th of March

Tickets: $65-$111

Booking: Ticketmaster.com or call 1300 111 011

Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Eddie Perfect’s THE BEAST

Relentless satire and fiercely funny

By Bradley Storer

Eddie Perfect’s The Beast, under the direction of Simon Phillips, has made its return to Melbourne at the Comedy Theatre, and set its sights squarely on the Australian middle class. A vicious and satirical examination of class warfare of this ilk hasn’t been seen since the like of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnagebe warned, there will be (literal) blood.

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The piece seems particularly suited to a Melbourne audience – the skewering of the affluent and aspirational upper middle class and their conflicts of status anxiety were met with uproarious laughter and applause, with a sense that these people were entirely familiar to those in the crowd.

Alison Bell as the acerbic outsider Marge drew big laughs with her biting wit, and a bone-dry sarcasm that was wielded to maximum effect in every scene. The warmth underneath the barbs was obvious in her interactions with her husband Baird, played by Perfect in addition to writing the text. Perfect touchingly conveys an average man doomed to the eternal ridicule of his pretentious friends while never fully understanding why – the character’s reversal of fortune in a cunning coup later in the piece, while satisfying to watch, feels almost too contrived and convenient to the plot.

Rohan Nichol was astonishingly awful as the smarmy self-appointed ‘leader’ of the male trio Simon, managing to elicit groans with his overbearing sense of entitlement and arrogance, while Christie Whelan Browne as his put-upon wife Gen was the perfect mixture of air-headed sweetness and burning resentment that exploded into some truly hilarious antics during the dinner party scene.

The only weakpoint of the sextet is the third couple – Toby Truslove as the rapidly crumbling Rob manages to find the underlying sweetness and sensitivity of the character but it never fully coalesces into a full characterization beyond the character’s overall oddball escapades and quirks. Heidi Arena as Sue fully commits to her character’s smiling and cheerful hypocrisies but has been directed to play so big that it feels self-consciously artificial to the point of caricature. Peter Houghton ably plays a variety of smaller roles, managed to shift chameleon-like into different characters so diverse that he is almost unrecognizable between them.

While the middle section of the play is wonderfully structured and cleverly written, with a scene involving the slaughter of a cow that had the audience falling out of their seats laughing, the opening scene and the underlying mystery which it wraps around the rest of the piece appears so out of place (and is dealt with so quickly at the conclusion) that it seems almost unnecessary to have them.  Watching these characters scrap and vie for dominion is so entertaining in itself and artfully depicted that I would have gladly watched it all night!

Venue: The Comedy Theatre, 240 Exhibition St, Melbourne VIC 3000

Date: 25th August – 10th September

Times: Wednesday – Saturday 7:30pm, Saturday 2pm, Sunday 1pm & 5pm

Prices: $79.90 – $129.90

Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au, Ph: 1300 723 038, at the box office.

Image by Ken Nakanishi

REVIEW: Return Season of NORTH BY NORTHWEST

Seeking the adventure again

By Caitlin McGrane

The reimagined Hitchcock classic North by Northwest gets an excellent presentation at the Melbourne Arts Centre after its fantastically successful run in 2015.

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For those who don’t know, the story is that of Roger O. Thornhill (Matt Day), Madison Avenue advertising executive mistaken for the mysterious George Kaplan in The Plaza Hotel in New York; thus setting in motion a chain of events that takes Thornhill to the United Nations, Chicago, and Mount Rushmore. His partner in crime is Eve Kendall (Amber McMahon), an enigmatic femme fatale with whom Thornhill forms an instant connection on a train.

Writer Carolyn Burns and director Simon Phillips really have done a terrific job of bringing the classic film to the stage; Burns has successfully managed to tread the very fragile line between appreciating and replicating the original, especially given it is such a well-loved text. Hitchcock’s contemporality is appropriately heightened through clever direction from Phillips, so some of the uncomfortable and backwards politics of the 1950s can be seen through a modern lens.

The ensemble cast, comprised of Nicholas Bell, Ian Bliss, Lyall Brooks, Leon Cain, Sheridan Harbridge, Matt Hetherington, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Gina Riley, Lucas Stibbard and Lachlan Woods are all clearly having a ball. Harbridge, Llewellyn Jones and Riley all delivered standout performances, providing just the right number of nods and winks to the audience and some truly excellent accents. It would perhaps have been nice to see more chemistry between the two leads, and it sometimes felt to me like McMahon’s Eve was not as self-assured as her silver screen counterpart. But these minor critiques did not hamper my enjoyment of their respective performances.

It would be extraordinarily remiss of me not to mention the exceptional creative work from the backstage team. Nick Schlieper’s lighting and set design were joyously clever and funny, Ian McDonald’s composition and sound design catapulted me back in time to my first screening of North by Northwest, while Josh and Jess Burns’ innovative and hilarious use of video really stole the show. I shall never see Mount Rushmore the same way ever again.

To have a bad time watching North by Northwest would be an extremely difficult thing, and while this may seem like damning with faint praise I really would be surprised if anyone came out of seeing this production feeling anything but contented. Sometimes what I need is a big sugary treat from the theatre, and North by Northwest delivered deliciously comforting familiarity in spades. This is the second time I’ve seen the production, and it is the combination of joy, self-awareness and fun that makes this such a pleasure to watch.

North by Northwest is now showing at The State Theatre at the Arts Centre until 13 February 2016. More information and tickets from: https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/theatre-drama/north-by-northwest-2016

REVIEW: Bernadette Robinson in PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE

Gripping, glamorous, and remarkably funny

By Narelle Wood

When I read the release for this, it sounded to me like The West Wing crossed with a musical, which would be awesome. But what the collaboration of playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, director Simon Phillips and actor Bernadette Robinson accomplished in Pennsylvania Avenue was something far better than I could have ever imagined – and my expectations were pretty high.

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Set in the Blue Room of the White House, famously directed by Jackie Kennedy, Harper Clare Clements (Robinson) takes us through her 40-year journey working in the entertainment department. This fictitious character, Harper, laments her personal narrative, interspersed with stories of musical greats whose performances are as much entrenched in the history of the White House as the ‘great’ men who held office. The tails begin with Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy era and meanders all the way through to the Clintons and Aretha Franklin, all the while Clements describing her part in the musical as well as the political history.

Clement offers a unique and intriguing perspective of the power, privilege and unexpected perks of working adjacent to the Oval Office. And while Clement’s haunting past often acts as a conduit for the music, moments of political struggle and significance are also captured in dialogue and song: JFk’s assassination, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, to name but a few.

Anyone could be forgiven for thinking Harper Clare Clement and her exploits to be true. The story is so compelling and plausible: the historic events are portrayed so accurately and Clement’s tale seems an all-too-familiar one in an era that placed such little value on a woman’s voice. The movement of narrative from the ordinary, tragic, and joyous to the extraordinary would perhaps in other setting be unbelievable, but in The White House, anything seems possible. The plausibility is further facilitated by an array of still photographs that appear in the background, capturing and reinforcing the narrative as it moves along. But ultimately the believability factor must be contributed to the combination of Murray-Smith’s punchy writing, Phillip’s direction and Robinson’s embodiment of every character she plays. So accurate is Robinson’s mimicry in both voice and movement of the great musicians that after a Sarah Vaughan number the band broke into applause.

This production deserves every accolade it receives and more. Laugh-out-loud funny, charming and heartrending, Pennsylvania Avenue has all the ingredients for a killer political drama with a killer soundtrack to boot.

Venue: Playhouse, The Arts Centre, Melbourne
Season: Until 14th February, Tue – Thu 7.30pm, Fri – Sat 8pm, Wed & Sat 2pm, Sun 5pm
Tickets: From $65
Bookings: artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/musicals/pennsylvania-avenue

REVIEW: MTC Presents LADIES IN BLACK

Sleek, stylish and utterly winning

By Caitlin McGrane

The lead-up to Ladies in Black has been, for me, quite mysterious. It is the creative brainchild of Carolyn Burns (North by Northwest) and Tim Finn, so my expectations were suitably high, particularly because the production is also directed by Simon Phillips (North by Northwest). During the interval of Ladies in Black I struggled to think whether I had ever seen an Australian musical – would Priscilla or Strictly Ballroom count? And generally speaking musicals aren’t my thing, but Ladies in Black was jolly good fun, uproariously funny, and most importantly melted my feminist heart.

Ladies in Black starring Kathryn McIntyre, Kate Cole, Christen O’Leary, Naomi Price, Lucy Maunder, Deidre Rubenstein, Carita Farrer Spencer.jpg

It is the gentle, uplifting coming-of-age story of Lisa (Sarah Morrison), a shy, bookish Sydney teenager in the 1950s and her job at Goodes’ department store. Her colleagues in cocktail frocks Fay (Naomi Price) and Patty (Lucy Maunder), along with the magnificent Magda (Christen O’Leary) and lovely Miss Jacobs (Deidre Rubenstein) softly introduce her to life in the adult world. Although excellently played by Morrison, I found Lisa was sometimes competing for stage space with other characters in ways that felt, to me, a little jarring. That is not to say that anyone or any scene was unnecessary, I think writer Carolyn Burns did an exceptional job of rounding out every character as much as she could, to me this seemed like the consequence of not wanting to leave anyone out because they were all so worth seeing. I particularly enjoyed the (wonderfully oft-repeated song) about men being bastards and the way in which it was the male characters that were sidelined and showed shame for their sexual appetites, neatly subverting historical convention and giving the play a truly modern edge.

My only reservations about the whole production are: I would have loved to see the New Year’s Eve party, and some lines from other scenes sometimes felt like unnecessary exposition. Even though O’Leary’s Magda was terrific rattling through the evening’s events at breakneck speed, I would have enjoyed seeing Lisa and Fay dancing; however, I appreciate that the focus of the play was the women, not their male beaus.
The play is beautifully staged, and the opening of the second act was a particular highlight. The band (Gerard Assi, David Hatch, Matt Hassall, Jo To and Paul Zabrowarny) playing the music (nicely visible behind the stage) were outstanding – each scene felt accompanied by the perfect jazz riff or subtle tinkling of atmospheric music.

Unsurprisingly the costumes (from designer Gabriela Tylesova) were breathtaking, and now I really want to own at least one cocktail frock. Lighting (designed by David Walters) was suitably impressive – moving seamlessly from snowy street to sunny beach to moody bar.

My usual aversion to musicals has been swiftly demolished by this beautiful performance: it was extremely difficult not to get caught up in the whimsical daydreams of all the characters, and I left feeling as though it was the first production I had seen in a long time that didn’t talk down to the audience and really relished in the shiny, glossy newness of a beautiful dress.

Ladies in Black is now playing at The Sumner Theatre at the Melbourne Theatre Company in Southbank until 27 February 2016. More information and tickets at: http://www.mtc.com.au/plays-and-tickets/season-2016/ladies-in-black

Image by Rob Maccoll

INTERVIEW: North By Northwest’s SIMON PHILLIPS and CAROLYN BURNS

Screen-to-stage hit returns, as creators share their insights with Theatre Press

By Caitlin McGrane

Simon Phillips and Carolyn Burns, the marvellous creative team behind Kay + McLean Productions’ outstanding production of North by Northwest graciously agreed to be interviewed by me over Skype. As the show returns at The Arts Centre for two weeks only from 29 January I was keen to know about how the production came together, what their creative processes had been and what their next project will be.

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Theatre Press: Can you tell me a little about the production process and what it was like working with the MTC?
Simon Phillips: Well, I used to run the MTC for so long, so I love the MTC and everyone’s my friend, you see…
Carolyn Burns: … Yes, they’re always very gracious about the demands…
SP: And it’s lovely working with the MTC because [North By Northwest] was quite a big project and they took it on with enthusiasm and they were such big supporters. And before that we’d actually had it developed: it had been commissioned by Andrew Kay in Brisbane while we were trying to get all the video concept to come together. We couldn’t really proceed with confidence until we had that sorted out, because so much of putting the production together was unproblematic, but that really was something we had to get right. We did a lot of development with QPAC (Queensland Performance Arts Centre) and then with the MTC itself.
TP: Yes I can imagine that must’ve been quite involved as a process.
CB: The workshop we did in Brisbane we only got up to the airplane scene. It was really about Simon getting the style right before I even started writing, in a way. Because I knew the work and had done a lot of studying and knew the angle I wanted to take, so until Simon worked with Audio/Visual Artist Josh Burns on how to do those scenes… Simon and Josh came up with some brilliant concepts – I think Josh came up with the Lazy Susan.
TP: Can you tell me a little about how you adapted the film for the stage? Did you use any footage of the film? And was it very hard to obtain the rights for that footage?
SP: Well we actually didn’t use any of the footage from the original film. Although one of the main issues we had, was that Mount Rushmore is a copyrighted image so we had to find a creative solution to incorporating that. I always think that if you’re going to adapt a film for the stage there has to be a point of difference because if you’re showing parts of the film on stage you’re essentially saying that the film is unadaptable.
CB: The only real difference was that I wanted to make a tribute to Rear Window, which is one of my favourite films. So, starting off the production looking into people’s windows and getting a slight hint on who they were and what they were doing. The mother playing cards, one of them cleaning the gun, and getting a feel of the spies.
TP: I feel like the script and the way that the play pans out is a tribute to Hitchcock in a lot of ways it incorporates a lot of his themes and his unique visions. Would you agree?
CB: Oh well, I would. I studied [North by Northwest] at film school when I was a student from an art-direction point of view; I did fall in love with his wonderful way of shotlisting, and his take on life and his subtexts, and his mad, mad mind. My job really was to assume that no-one in the audience had ever seen the film, so it could still tell the story if they hadn’t seen the film. And Simon’s was to do everything else; he created the most beautiful set design.
TP: Can you tell me a little about your creative vision? And do you think you were able to realise that vision?
SP: I know it sounds too easy but Liza McLean [from Kay and McLean Productions] said to us after it had opened that it had perfectly realised what we had described and how it was going to work. But it’s funny because I really had to work out the design in order to say with confidence ‘yes I have a way of staging this.’ Actually I only realised the other day when I came across some early sketches that it did go through a hell of a lot of permutations. The two most difficult scenes were the cropduster and Mount Rushmore, and it was those two scenes that we had to make sure we were on top of before we even started. And Carolyn was very interested in the East versus West thing, spy versus spy.
CB: Yes. my favourite line is the whole thing is when Roger, the Carey Grant figure, says ‘you’re as bad as each other.’ And I just thought ‘both countries’ and I think it’s still the same and it’s still completely relevant today, wouldn’t you?
TP: I would completely agree. One of the great things about Hitchcock is that he is so contemporary and still so relevant today. For instance Eve is given her own character arc, she’s not a femme fetale, she has her own character development.
SP: Oh yes and she’s incredibly witty and very contemporary, which is so great and she is much more than a match for [Roger].
CB: And it also shows the development of one of the original Mad Men [Roger] who starts shallow and ends up slightly deeper. I did really enjoy writing for the mother, and in doing so making [Roger] even more of a mummy’s boy. We’re very lucky that Gina Riley has taken on that role.
TP: I just have one final question, Carolyn you mentioned your time at film school, I was wondering if you could give me a brief overview of your journey to the stage.
CB: Well, because I spent a lot of my childhood reading I found that writing was something that came fairly naturally to me and when I was 9 I wrote my first musical. Then I began writing little pieces for the newspaper; I didn’t really begin writing properly until I went to university in Auckland with Simon, where I wrote my first adult play. I’ve had a very long and complicated journey and in some way it has been a sideline to bringing up four children. I learned from Alan Plater while I was at film school that there is a real art to adaptation. But this one, North by Northwest, is really all about the style. Simon and I haven’t worked together that much but it is lovely to work with him now.
TP: That’s wonderful, thank you very much for your time. Best of luck with the next run of North by Northwest and with the opening of Ladies in Black.

North by Northwest is showing at the Arts Centre in Melbourne from 29 January to 10 February 2016. For tickets and more information visit : https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/theatre-drama/north-by-northwest-2016
Ladies in Black is showing at the Melbourne Theatre Company from 16 January to 27 February 2016. For tickets and more information visit: http://www.mtc.com.au/plays-and-tickets/season-2016/ladies-in-black/